What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Regular’ Baptist?

Jeff Brodrick May 2, 2008




In 1790, the same year the United States generated its first Federal Population Census, John Asplund compiled his Annual Register of the Baptist Denomination in America. Having a great desire and the wherewithal to have “travelled about 7000 miles, in about 18 months, chiefly by foot,” Mr. Asplund recorded for the very first time a comprehensive list of Baptist churches and associations in America.1 This Baptist census is interesting because the author described the greatest number of Baptists in America as “Regular,” one of the first times this label occurs in early American print. Who were these Regular Baptists?

All of the importantly held Baptist beliefs (distinctives) were advocated by various pre-Reformation groups. We believe these beliefs can be traced back to the apostles. However, while this history of Baptist beliefs can be traced back to the start of the church, we believe a careful study of true church history reveals that these early groups did not identify themselves as Baptists, nor were they called Baptists by anyone prior to the sixteenth century.2

General and Particular Baptists

At the close of the sixteenth century believers who would eventually identify themselves as Baptists separated from a group of other nonconformists. This group was earlier banished from England to Holland for its non–Anglo-Catholic religious practices. Upon returning to England, this group of souls formed the nucleus of the first local Baptist church in London. In Baptists in Upper and Lower Canada before 1820, Stuart Ivison and Fred Rosser reported a developing theological difference:

The Church established in Spitafields by [Thomas] Helwys in 1611, and the five Baptist Churches that were added during the next fifteen years, were of the doctrinal type known as “Arminian.” That is, they accepted the view of the Dutch theologian, Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) that the Atonement of Christ was of “general” (i.e. universally sufficient) scope, and that all men were free to accept its benefits. . . . This belief in a “general” atonement led to their successors being known as General Baptists.3

Ivison and Rosser also show how other Baptists gathering into local congregations in England held to a more Calvinistic position of the atonement: “By 1638 there were also congregations of ‘Particular’ Baptists, who held that the Atonement was of particular application, i.e., for the sake of the elect only.” By the close of the seventeenth century there were General Baptist churches and Particular Baptist churches scattered throughout England. This was about the time that Baptists were making their way to the new world called America.

Regular Baptists in America

As both groups of Baptists arrived in America, their names gradually changed. After settling into the colonies, General Baptists in the middle colonies were more commonly called Free Baptists. Particular Baptists, in and around freer colonies such as Rhode Island, came to be called Regular Baptists. The designation “Regular” to describe one kind of Baptist did not appear until the Baptists came to America.

Until the Philadelphia Baptist Association was formed in 1707, the Free (General) Baptists had a numerical advantage over the Regular (Particular) Baptists. The Philadelphia association formulated a striking Confession of Faith (1742) that drew heavily from the Second London Confession of Faith (1689) and the earlier Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). The Philadelphia Baptists, who also advocated an aggressive missions program, shifted the tide of the number of Free Baptists to Regular Baptists throughout New England and the rest of the Eastern Seaboard.

Prior to the Great Awakening, the two Baptist groups shared a common problem: persecution. In A Brief History of the Regular Baptists (1877), Achilles Coffey states that “amidst the struggle to preach the gospel with liberty, Baptists in Virginia were cruelly beaten and imprisoned.” The two groups of Baptist in Virginia were, for a time, unified by the “the cohesive power of opposition from without.”4 Not until the Great Awakening did they separate again because of their respective positions on the atonement.

Later Regular Baptist Groups

Eventually the name “Regular Baptist” became somewhat generic and no longer necessarily designated particular atonement beliefs. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to sort through all of the various groups. During the western expansion of America, so-called Free Baptists (remember: general atonement), held to a strict belief that baptism by immersion not only placed one into the local church membership but allowed the baptized new member to partake in communion. This “closed” communion teaching gave these churches a decided designation of “Strict Baptists.” These Strict Baptists also called themselves Regular Baptists because of their position. Moreover, their detractors began referring to these Strict Baptists as Hard-shell or even Primitive Baptists.5 President Abraham Lincoln’s parents, Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, were members of a Hard-shell Baptist church in Kentucky, which was part of the Licking-Locust Association of Regular Baptists (see “Who Knew: Abraham Lincoln Was a Regular Baptist?”).

Eventually any Strict Baptist churches in Canada that held to this strict order of belief about communion called themselves Regular Baptists because they were just normal, orthodox (regular) practicing Baptists. The Association of Regular Baptist Churches—formed in Ontario, Canada, in 1957—still holds to a closed communion teaching and practice. The predecessor of the ARBC was the Union of Regular Baptist Churches, formed in 1928 in Hamilton, Ontario.

The Old Regular Baptists is an early American group from the New Salem Association of United Baptists, which was formed in Kentucky in 1825. The association changed its name to Regular United (1854), then to Regular Primitive (1870), and then to Regular Baptist (1871). In 1892, the group finally settled on “Old Regular.” In addition to observing a closed communion, these Regular Baptists also practice foot-washing.

The Sovereign Grace Association of Old Regular Baptist Churches of Jesus Christ claims to be more conservative in its daily walk, but the group also holds to the same kinds of practices found in the aforementioned Old Regular Baptists.

Understanding “Regular” in the GARBC

The General Association of Regular Baptist Churches has affirmed a moderately Calvinistic statement of faith based on the New Hampshire Confession (1833). Its use of the word “Regular” has never been a direct reference to a particular view of the atonement; rather, it stems from the later, more generic meaning of the word. By the time the GARBC was formed in 1932, the Modernist Controversy had split the Northern Baptist Convention into several factions. Regular Baptists held orthodox beliefs in an era when some Baptist churches were highly irregular. This meaning of “Regular” was clear from the beginning, when Howard Fulton preached his seminal sermon “What Regular Old Fashioned Baptists Stand For” (see excerpt in sidebar).

The Latin term regula, which means “rule or example,” is the root of our English word “regular.” The first time the word was used in the English form was in 1387. John of Trevisa (c.1326–c.1402, English writer) connected it to the Canon (“rule or measure”) of Scripture. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary provides a similar definition for “regular” in the adjectival form: “Ecclesiastically subject to, or bound by, a religious rule, belonging to a religious or monastic order.” For our churches, “Regular” is an adjective that describes Baptists as orthodox churches that affirm the rule or measure of Scripture.

In The Baptists (1988), William Henry Brackney summarized this long history by stating, “Baptists have differed widely about their origins and their composition.”6 This is certainly true. But when it comes to answering, “Who are the Regular Baptists?” it is not so difficult to find their origin or the distinct quality found in the word “Regular” when placed next to the name “Baptist.” A Regular Baptist believes orthodox, Baptist doctrine.

Notes

[1] John Asplund, The Annual Register of the Baptist Denomination in North-America (Philadelphia: Dobson, 1792).
[2]
For the most part, GARBC churches do not trace their name to “John the Baptist” or hold to the various forms of Baptist succession.
[3] Stuart Ivison and Fred Rosser, Baptists in Upper and Lower Canada before 1820 (University of Toronto Press: 1956), 5.
[4] Achilles Coffey, A Brief History of the Regular Baptists, Principally of Southern Illinois (Paducah, KY: Martin & Co. Steam Printers and Binders, 1877).
[5] An outstanding book showing these distinctions is Peter Naylor’s Calvinism, Communion and the Baptists (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2003).
[6] William Henry Brackney, The Baptists (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), 1.

Jeff Brodrick is the associate library director at Baptist Bible College, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania.